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June 1, 2008 -- Press of Atlantic City (NJ)

Editorial: Real Government Waste -- Mandatory Sentences

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Stop government waste. That's what state taxpayers are clamoring for, right? Cut out the padded pensions, lavish trips, no-show jobs ...

But all the money spent in those time-worn examples of "waste" pales in comparison to the millions and millions of dollars state taxpayers are spending to lock up nonviolent drug offenders who unwittingly found themselves within 1,000 feet of a school, or who are first-time offenders better served by drug treatment or other alternatives to jail.

The Drug Policy Alliance released a study last week finding the state spends $331 million per year jailing nonviolent drug offenders, or more than the entire corrections budgets for 16 states.

More than one-third of the state's prison population was convicted of drug possession or low-level distribution offenses -- at a yearly cost, per prisoner, of $46,880.

And for what? Many of those offenders are in jail because of mandatory sentencing laws and tougher penalties for offenses within drug-free zones.

Yet studies and commissions have concluded that drug-free zones and mandatory sentences don't deter drug activity near schools.

Fact is, in somes urban areas, the 1,000-foot school zones blanket the entire city -- making them meaningless as a deterrent. And one commission found that students were involved in only 2 percent of the cases.

The report pointed out that not only is money being wasted, but lives.

Serving a jail sentence reduces someone's earning ability by up to 40 percent, the study found. Lives often spiral downward after prison. Society, as well as the individual, suffers.

Politicians in the past refused to budge on rolling back these tougher drug laws. They feared looking soft on crime -- even if their stubbornness flew in the face of common sense and fairness.

Perhaps in the context of hard budget choices and tapped-out taxpayers, politicians finally see this issue as one of economics as well as justice.

Perhaps they already have.

Both Assemblyman Joe Cryan, D-Union, and Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, are supporting a bill that would give judges more discretion in sentencing for offenses near schools.

The bill would allow judges to hand down a lesser sentence or assign probation in certain cases when someone is arrested in a drug-free school zone.

It's an excellent start.

Ultimately, these zones need to be scaled back or eliminated. And the state needs to expand its drug-court program, which allows certain offenders to bypass jail if they attend drug-treatment programs and stay drug-free for five years.

At a time when the state is being forced to cut money for otherwise-worthy programs, it is inconceivable that it is spending $46,880 a year to lock up people whose lives could be infinitely more productive -- and society better served -- with a cheaper and better alternative.

That, folks, is government waste.

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